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Evaluate Expertise: Is this critic qualified to comment on the cause of summer wildfires?

SKILL: Evaluate Expertise

DIFFICULTY: Challenging

SUBJECT(S): Climate change, Politics/Current Events

Columnist Steve Milloy claims media were “all wrong” to blame Canada’s summer wildfires on climate change, but an expertise check shows him to be a fossil fuel lobbyist

Background

This summer, Canada experienced an unprecedented wildfire season. Uncontrollable fires burned in nine provinces and territories, causing the destruction of forests and buildings and  resulting in the evacuation of approximately 196 000 Canadians. Toxic smoke from the fires caused poor air quality in North American cities from coast to coast. 

The Spectator is a politically conservative weekly British news magazine on politics and culture, which also operates a U.S.-focused website. 

Lobbyists or lobby groups try to influence public opinion and government legislation in favour of a particular cause. They organize advocacy campaigns to get their message out to the public and try to convince politicians to make decisions that benefit their businesses or industries, such as farming, or oil and gas.  



About the Example

In June, 23 2023, The Spectator’s American website ran an opinion article titled “Wildfire apocalypse, not.” Its author, Steve Milloy, claims that media coverage attributing the 2023 Canadian wildfires to climate change was “all wrong.” He asserts that wildfires are a normal natural phenomenon and are actually in decline.

This is a fact we could check, but before we do anything else,  let’s investigate the author’s expertise to see if we want to rely on him for information about forest fires and climate change at all.

Using Wikipedia to check his reputation, we can learn that Steve Milloy is a lawyer, lobbyist and author with ties to tobacco and oil companies. He is known for disputing the scientific consensus on climate change and health risks of second-hand smoke. 

While Steve Milloy holds a Bachelor’s degree in Natural Sciences, as well as other degrees in health sciences and law, which may seem relevant, the key fact is that he is paid to undermine the scientific consensus on climate change to protect his clients’ interests in fossil fuels. 

This doesn’t mean everything Steve Milloy writes is false. His motive for producing information, however, is to persuade, not to inform. If we want facts about wildfires without spin or conflict of interest, we are best trading up to a source with appropriate expertise.



Activities 

  1. Show students the example article and ask them to identify the author.
  2. Asks students to investigate the author’s expertise by searching on Wikipedia. (Using a search engine and the keywords: “steve milloy wikipedia” should bring the relevant entry to the top of search results.)
  3. Have students click into the Wikipedia entry on Steve Milloy to identify his education and profession. Guiding questions:
    • What is Steve Milloy’s background? 
    • Does he have domain knowledge in forest fires or climate change? 
    • What is a lobbyist? What motive do lobbyists have for producing information?
    • Do you trust Steve Milloy as a source for the information he is providing? What factors would you consider before basing an opinion on this article? 


Review and Discuss Key Concepts (optional)

Domain knowledge is deep understanding of a specific topic. When someone has domain knowledge, they may be considered an expert. For example, epidemiologists have domain knowledge of viruses and how they spread.

Show students the video “Evaluate Expertise with Mike Caulfield” and discuss the concept of domain knowledge. Guiding question:

  • What kinds of sources would you want to use to inform yourself about the cause of the 2023 Canadian wildfires? 

Lobbyists or lobby groups try to influence public opinion and government legislation in favour of a particular cause. They organize advocacy campaigns to get their message out to the public and try to convince politicians to make decisions that benefit their businesses or industries, such as farming, or oil and gas.  

Show students the “Persuasive Sources” video and discuss as a class the role of persuasive sources, like lobbyists, in our democracy.

Guiding questions:

  • What kinds of persuasive sources have you noticed in your life? What causes did they advocate for?
  • What might be different about information from sources with motives to persuade and motives to inform?
  • Just because a source might be trying to persuade you doesn’t mean it is a bad source or providing inaccurate information. With this in mind, why is it important to know the motive of a source when assessing information on a topic?


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